DARLINGTON, SC - MAY 07: The field drives into turn three during a caution at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series SHOWTIME Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on May 7, 2011 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images for NASCAR)
The Sprint Cup Series returns to the 62-year-old Darlington Raceway for the Bojangles Southern 500, NASCAR's original 500-mile race and its most grueling event.
When people talk about NASCAR Sprint Cup auto racing and bring up that magic 500-mile distance, nowadays discussion always seems to head straight to the Great American Race, the Daytona 500. And that isn't necessarily unfitting. It is our sport's iconic race and the one trophy drivers and teams seem to covet above all others, the championship trophy aside. Few words can send chills up and down a race fan's spine as quickly as "Daytona."
One name that gives Daytona a run for its money in the goosebumps department is the sight of this weekend's Bojangles Southern 500: Darlington.
The brainchild of Harold Brasington is NASCAR's original superspeedway, opening in 1950. In a sport where venues are often criticized by fans as being "cookie cutter," Darlington is as unique as it is aged. The 1.366-mile track is egg-shaped, with what are now the third and fourth corners significantly pinched in at the apex compared to turns one and two. This is because Brasington had promised Sherman Ramsey, the farmer who sold him the land to build the track, that he would not disturb Ramsey's minnow pond that was located near that end of the site.
Initially a concession - Brasington originally wanted to build the track to rival the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which he visited in 1948 - the egg-shaped design has become a huge part of Darlington's modern mystique. Because turns three and four are tighter and banked more steeply than turns one and two, setting up a car that will take both ends of the track competitively is a challenge-seeking engineer's dream. It is equally challenging for a driver to find a rhythm that will allow them to turn competitive lap times over the course of a long green flag run.
The Southern 500 is NASCAR's original 500-miler and is big-time stock car racing's true test of endurance. Even the Coca-Cola 600 - yes, that means 600 miles - that will take place Memorial Day Weekend takes a backseat to 367 grueling laps around the Darlington Raceway. It is so taxing physically and mentally that most competitors, no matter how physically fit, will appear absolutely drained upon climbing from their race cars Saturday night.
And keep in mind that the race is at night. Until 2004, when it was moved to late November before taking its current place on the calendar a year later, the 500 was traditionally run on Labor Day Weekend under a baking sun. It was not uncommon to see the pit area littered with drivers who had seemingly sweated out every last drop of fluid in their bodies and finally given out under the tremendous physical strain.
That is why the Southern 500 was the event that set NASCAR drivers apart from other athletes as being the toughest around. And with the draft making Daytona a crapshoot that anyone can seemingly win, Darlington is the legendary race that still takes everything a driver, his team, and his car can offer.
When planning to watch Saturday's race on FOX, be forewarned that it is a very, very long race. With a much lower race pace than other 500-milers on quicker circuits like Daytona and Atlanta, the Southern 500 seems to take as long, if not longer, than the aforementioned 600 at Charlotte. Watching how the race evolves over the course of those 500 miles is almost as fulfilling an experience as a diehard race fan can have, however, taking a backseat only to when their favorite driver scores a victory.